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Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

The latest from the BSFA Awards list – 6 out of 8 read now – but probably the last.

Solaris, 2014, 384 p.

 Europe in Autumn cover

For a long time there was a dearth of detective stories in SF. This may have been because of the necessity that such a story work as both SF and crime novel, creating a gap which writers couldn’t seem to bridge. However any such lack has long since been filled. I don’t recall, though, many outright spy story/SF crossovers. Thrillers, yes (but they are a different beast again.) Yet here we have Europe in Autumn, reminiscent of nothing so much as a Cold War era spy story. This may be due to the fact that, a brief excursion to London apart, it is set mainly in Eastern Europe, areas which were formerly in Warsaw Pact countries. There is too a constant hint of menace, of surveillance, of people with hidden agendas, pervading it. All of which Hutchinson handles with aplomb.

After the devastation of the Xian Flu Europe has fissured into innumerable small statelets, “Sanjaks. Margravates. Principalities. Länder.” One of these polities is a trans-European railway line running from Portugal to Siberia, but never more than ten kilometres wide. In this Europe borders, razor wire, visas and bureaucracy abound; travelling is not simple. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Kraków who is one day “invited” to join Les Coureurs des Bois, an organisation dedicated to smuggling mail, packages and sometimes people across the numerous borders. His training ends in a disastrous foray into the railway’s territory. Later “situations” also turn out less than well and he begins to wonder why.

This set-up is intriguing. A Europe returned to a pre-Napoleonic patchwork – only much worse; some of the polities extend to no more than a couple of blocks of flats. It’s certainly surprising. One thing I never expected to read was a piece of SF explicitly discussing the merits or otherwise of the Schengen Agreement. How all this sticks together, plus the relevance of maps of non-existent places, is all revealed in a tightly plotted, highly readable thriller style narrative. In parts Europe in Autumn reminded me of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – was there something in the air the year before last? – there are extremely faint echoes, growing stronger towards the book’s end, of Transition, plus parallels with The City and the City and similarities with PƒITZ.

Europe in Autumn is a good book – even a very good book – but I’m not entirely sure about its place on the BSFA Award ballot. It has SF trappings to be sure, invisibility suits amongst them, but, in essence, it’s a spy novel.

The phrase “he wardrove around the city” was a new one on me but I’m grateful for it.

Pedant’s corner:- Hutchinson has too much of a fondness for the phrase “tipped his/her/my head to one side,” to indicate a character’s desire for more information, clarification or knowledge of evasion. Also: we had “a raise” (but elsewhere Hutchison also uses the British formulation a pay “rise,”) “I don’t think anybody understands the offside trap any more,” (OK this was a piece of spy speak but shouldn’t it still have been offside law? The offside trap is an effort to employ the law in a team’s favour,) tokomaks (tokamaks,) “for the first time in many years feeling anything approaching sympathy for his father,” (shouldn’t that be something rather than anything?) watched them them go, “Here he was, sitting here quite comfortably,” Minster for Minister.

Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Picador, 2000, 344 p.

Mr Mee cover

Mr Mee bears several Crumey hallmarks; explanations of concepts from Physics (and, in this case, probability) in literary form, characters from the 18th century, ruminations on literature and philosophy. The narrative is triple stranded: that of Mr Mee himself, in the form of the eighty six year old’s letters to an old friend; the adventures of two Frenchmen, “the Gossips,” Ferrand and Minard, who meet Jean-Jacques Rousseau and precipitate his flight from France; and the meanderings of academic Dr Petrie whose main research interest is those same two Frenchmen. The epilogue introduces a fourth narrator who once installed a Théâtrophone in the bedridden Marcel Proust’s apartment. It casts further light on the preceding stories and has the potential to alter the reader’s perceptions of them, though is perhaps a little too eager to drop in literary allusions.

The unworldly Mr Mee, stuck in his ways and almost drowning in a sea of books, is prompted by his housekeeper, Mrs B, to discover that the worlds of literature and philosophy are available through the less space consuming medium of the PC and the internet. What he finds there intrigues him – and shocks Mrs B into leaving abruptly. His old fashioned attitudes to modern life and his misunderstandings are a source of light humour (“those nice folk at Dixons,” the joys of live video links – a bus stop in Aberdeen and a naked girl reading a book which is of course Dr Petrie’s on Ferrand and Minard, the “sensational and sentimental” fare that passes for Scottish literature in a modern bookshop) unusual in Crumey’s work. His encounter with practical and capable life scientist student Catriona leads the unmarried (and sexual ingénu) Mr Mee to new experiences.

Ferrand and Minard are copyists, whose latest project regarding a new understanding of how the world works is stolen from their flat and whose downstairs neighbour has been murdered. Fearing the blame for the killing they flee to Montmorency, come under the protection of a Bishop Bertier and end up living next door to Rousseau who is said to think the world would be a much better place without books.

Dr Petrie has been captivated by the sexual possibilities involved in his tutoring of a mature (twenty four year old) student called Louisa and imagines his disease symptoms are a reflection of his attraction to her. He believes Ferrand and Minard to have been invented by Rousseau whose Confessions he says are as much a fiction as was the novel Émile.

The text contains a lot of literary reference; not just to Rousseau and Proust but to mechanical poetry and the pitfalls of attributing what happens in a novel to autobiography, (“a person called ‘I’ who is not necessarily oneself.”) Other aperçus include, “the moment in which we live, like the self we inhabit, is the one we are least equipped to understand,” “when faced with an unfamiliar situation, we play the part as best we can; and our scripts come to us from many places,” the contention that “all men write for sex,” and the observation that “out of character” simply means unexpectedly. (Compare Allan Massie.)

Mr Mee is a kind of companion piece to D’Alembert’s Principle; some of that books preoccupations reappear – we hear again of D’Alembert and Diderot and their Encyclopédie – and there is a sly reference to the contents of Crumey’s earlier book Pƒitz. Dr Petrie tells Louisa that “Rousseau’s novel, like Proust’s, is intimately concerned with the nature of writing.” So, too, is Crumey’s, an engagement with what a novel is, or can be, the uses to which fiction can be put and an examination of the ways in which texts can be interpreted. While the book can be read solely for the stories contained within it these other aspects for me add value, elevate it beyond the level of just a novel but, curiously in such a well-crafted literary piece of work, we twice had “chord” for “cord,” even if I was also grateful to be introduced to the useful word “anacoluthon” (lack of syntactical agreement of the latter part of a sentence with the former.)

I had some misgivings about the way Mr Mee’s relationship with Catriona develops. She is depicted as being in control throughout (indeed she is by far the more knowing of the two, about modern life as well as in a sexual sense) but still. However, yet again Crumey has written an intriguing novel, well worth anyone’s attention.

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